When Paul is telling us about the dangers he faced he’s often quite understated and matter of fact. It’s interesting, therefore, to hear Luke’s first-hand account of one of those experiences in this passage from the lectionary readings for May. Here Luke spares us no details and spells out the drama of the situation in the most lurid terms.
Notice the arresting way in which the slave girl describes these early Christians. They are not servants of God, with rights and privileges. They are not entitled to be protected from danger. Instead, they are ‘slaves’. Slaves have to do unquestioningly whatever their owner tells them. This includes putting themselves in harm’s way and doing dangerous things.When Paul responds by healing the girl, her divinations about him and Silas are proved true. Luke, of course, escapes, no doubt grateful to be push aside as they are dragged before the magistrates, attacked by the mob and then beaten with rods, the traditional Roman punishment for disturbing the peace.Not content with giving them a severe flogging the magistrates also throw Paul and Silas into prison, perhaps for their own protection.
And there further dangers await when an earthquake strikes which is so severe that it shakes the prison to its foundations. Whether it’s actually the earthquake which rattles open the doors and frees the prisoners from their chains, or whether the prison guards release them out of compassion, we’re not told. Either way, the earthquake would have been taken by many prisoners as the perfect opportunity to make good their escape.
Not so, Paul, of course. If this is God’s idea of a ‘get out of gaol free’ card he refuses to take it, and perhaps it’s his earlier steadfast witness in prayer and praise to the other prisoners which persuades them to stay put too. Christianity isn’t a passport out of danger, it’s a ticket into danger and difficulty for Jesus’ sake. If Paul and Silas had not resisted the temptation to escape they would have missed the opportunity to convert the gaoler and his family to the new faith.Are we ready to face challenge and danger too, in order to grasp the opportunities which it might bring in our own lives and in the life of the Church?